In Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Robert Matzen provides an engaging, compelling memoir that focuses primarily on Stewart’s time as an aviator during World War II. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Goodknight Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.
The book begins with Stewart’s childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. His is a close knit family with a strong military tradition. An outstanding student, he is educated at Princeton and falls in love with theater one summer. He hits the road for Hollywood to fulfill his dream.
Because of the title, I am taken aback at the amount of celebrity gossip that is included in the first portion of the biography. Matzen wants us to know that Stewart used his skinny-awkward-young-man routine as a sort of foreplay to work his way between the sheets with one well known actress after another; he lists many of them. I could have lived without this part, but maybe you’ll enjoy it. If like me you are really only interested in the military aspect of it, skip the Hollywood part at the start and pick it back up when he enlists. Eventually this is what I did.
Once there, the story is fascinating. Stewart resolutely straight-armed studio efforts to keep him in the USA or use him to entertain troops, as some actors that are drafted chose to do. He angers a studio head who actually tells him, “You’ll never work in this town again”. He decides he is going to do his part like any other man, apart from the fact that he had always wanted to fly and now has the money for a private plane and flying lessons. Once he is actually in uniform, he is able to become the aviator he has dreamed of being as a youngster.
As Martzen unspools Stewart’s story, which had to be difficult to research given Stewart’s resolute refusal to discuss that period, I am instantly engaged. I had known at one time that the planes were not heated back then, but hadn’t fully appreciated the dangers and challenges posed by the cold alone once in the air. A man could suffocate if he didn’t regularly break the ice off of his mask. Men could and did lose body parts to frostbite.
The stories of the men that would eventually serve under him as he rises in rank, not due to strings pulled by authorities but as he has wished, by merit and leadership capability, are also both interesting and poignant. Reading the way the pilots name and decorate their planes, how individual aircraft with idiosyncrasies that make them handle differently so that the pilots strongly prefer to fly their own ships, is interesting, and reading the personal details and in some cases, the deaths of these men is wrenching in some places, poignant in others.
When Stewart has completed his military service, he looks at least ten years older than he is. He’s seen a lot. If he returns to Hollywood, there’s no chance he will play the same roles he used to do. He stalwartly refuses to exploit his time in the service by making World War II films, which are enormously popular, and for a long time, his phone doesn’t ring. He’s sleeping at his parents’ house in his old childhood bedroom, wondering what will happen. But in time he hears from Frank Capra, who has an idea for a picture “based on a story titled ‘The Greatest Gift,’ about a man from a small town who wishes he had never been born. Jim was the only actor in Hollywood whom Capra considered for the role.”
Despite the sense of alienation he experiences with his return to the other-worldly, glitzy city after his gritty, intense experience in the war, Stewart is glad to be back, and he plays what will become an iconic role, that of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He credits Capra with saving his career, and is overjoyed to be back:
“He was engaged in something magical again, something to interest people in the art of living, rather than the art of dying.”
The book also discusses Stewart’s lifelong friendship with Henry Fonda, and his marriage. We get a brief overview of the peacetime lives of the surviving members of Stewart’s first crew.
If it were up to me, I would remove all of the somewhat jarring photos at the end of the book that show Stewart alongside one actress after another, and I’d replace them with photos and maybe diagrams of the planes we hear so much about. A map here and there wouldn’t hurt, since we follow his flight paths and it’s sometimes hard to visualize where these places are. I used Google, but would like to see these included as part of the published memoir, perhaps in the center, where they’re most relevant.
I recommend this biography to fans of Stewart’s, and I recommend most of this book to those with an interest in military history. The book is available to the public today, October 24, 2016.